ART AND ENCHANTMENT: How Wonder Works
London & New York: Routledge, 2023
Patrick Curry is, to my mind, one of the most important ecological thinkers of our time. The author of a major philosophical work, Ecological Ethics, he is also a brilliant exponent of the nature wisdom contained in the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Certainly, he persuaded me – a long-time Tolkien sceptic – of the ecological importance of that wonderful work. ‘Wonder’ is, in fact, the principal concern of Curry’s more recent writing. He has certainly understood Max Weber’s argument that modernity has brought with it a ‘disenchantment of the world’, due to the excessive concern with rationality and systematisation at the expense of spiritual, communal and imaginative life.
Curry’s new book follows naturally from his earlier work, Enchantment in Modern Life. Essentially, it is an ambitious but thoroughly readable approach to the culture of the last century or more in terms of a kind of vision that opens up possibilities and connections. Metaphor is key to this: it awakens us to a new reality, a new way of being in the world. Where there is metaphor, there is also likely to be myth: image and narrative complement each other, opening up the world to the power of enchantment. In doing so, we learn to revere nature itself, our ultimate reality.
His focus being on the modern world, he is careful to make a key distinction: it is fine for a work of art to be ‘modern’, but we must be suspicious if it is specifically ‘modernist’. What he means by ‘modernism’ is an ideology of artistic progress informed by a contempt for tradition, which it associates with ignorance and superstition. Modernists espouse secularism, materialism and rationality. Some people may argue with this usage, but it certainly makes sense in terms of his argument that certain ‘modern’ works celebrate and enact enchantment while other ‘modernist’ works enact a resistance to it.
Curry focuses on exactly how we locate enchantment through art in all its main forms: music, painting, poetry, fiction. What I like about the book is that rather than give a simple history of these genres, he offers his own personal journey through them. Not that we are subject to his whims: he manages to be both expressive and authoritative.
Music is particularly important because the word ‘enchantment’ literally means the state of being ‘in a song’. We are given fascinating insights into the way music works, while being left in no doubt which forms of music and which musicians the author regards as important ‘enchanters’, and we are left in no doubt as to which classical composers are worth listening to – Chopin, Debussy and John Luther Adams, for example – and which are not, notably Wagner and John Cage.
Nor is popular music overlooked. Here I must admit that I found myself ticking off with satisfaction the names of the songwriters and/or bands which he celebrates: in particular, Bob Dylan (of course!), Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band. Compared with these, he conjectures, the current pop scene seems woefully mechanical and unadventurous, though he makes a good case for some musicians who have emerged in our current century – in particular, Joanna Newsom.
With painting, he demonstrates how Monet, Matisse and Bonnard confront the world of disenchantment and convey what enchantment might be like. If you are someone who has been impressed by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Damian Hirst, be prepared to thoroughly disabused! (By the way, it’s good to see the 19C art critic and social theorist John Ruskin celebrated as an advocate of enchantment and a resolute defender of the natural world.)
As for literary forms, it will come as no surprise to find Currry passionately celebrating, in his chapter on fiction, the genius of Tolkien – with an interesting case also being made for Russell Hoban and Karen Blixen. Not being familiar with these writers, they have now been added to my list of prospective reading. His discussion of poetic enchantment begins, of course, with the Romantics. We then get an interesting case for Yeats’s bravery in countering the world of disenchantment. Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Auden are assessed in relation to the world of wonder – with Auden being seen as being dogged by his own modernist cleverness. Particularly welcome for me in this chapter is a sensitive exposition of the massive contribution of Edward Thomas to poetic enchantment in spite of his life being cut so short by war.
All in all, this is an uplifting book, encouraging us to appreciate what it means to be ‘in a song’, in a state of ‘enchantment’. There is endless possibility, despite all the forces working against this mode of being. I finished reading the book with a declaration made by the Incredible String Band in mind: ‘Be glad, for the song has no ending.’